By Emilia David and Paayal Zaveri
Varun Negandhi always intended to one day join the ranks of the US’ great immigrant tech-startup founders.
But seven years into his career as a software engineer in Detroit’s legendary auto industry, he found out his work visa prevented him from starting up a company of his own. And applications for permanent residency, by way of the famed “green card,” were in a queue lasting as long as a decade.
He started to look for a new country in which to settle his family that had friendlier visa terms — and found one very close to home.
“Being in Detroit and being on the border of US and Canada, I saw friends moving to Canada while working on an H-1B with their companies,” he said. “Then it started to click that I can go to Canada, work with my company, but also have the freedom to start something on the side.”
Negandhi’s story epitomizes a trend that should trouble America and its storied tech industry. Foreign-born workers are increasingly going to countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and Australia, where they’re freer to find a job or start their own company without having to deal with America’s immigration system, which many consider nightmarish and outdated.
As those tech workers look for greener pastures, that means America isn’t getting the talent it desperately needs to keep up with China, India, and other countries, whose own tech sectors are blossoming into formidable rivals to Silicon Valley.
Without change, and fast, experts say this could mean an entire lost generation of tech talent for American tech.
“We have a shortage of highly skilled workers,” Jason Finkelman, an immigration lawyer who specializes in work visas, said. “Therefore, the H-1B visa program and similar programs address that because you have so many US companies that are struggling to find the talent they need to remain competitive in the global marketplace.”
And America’s loss is proving a boon for other countries, who are explicitly going after the skilled tech workers who fall through the cracks of America’s immigration system.
“Foreign countries have figured out ways to more aggressively attack top-tier tech talent,” Hiba Anver, an immigration attorney with Erickson Immigration Group, told Insider. “The US as a destination is not No. 1 by as big of a margin as it has been in past years.”
The US needs to move fast or risk being left behind
If the US wants to remain the top destination for tech talent, the government needs to make changes to the system, or it risks falling behind, experts said.
The country’s immigration system is notoriously hard to navigate and has been backlogged for years. Tech companies have relied on student and work visas — including the F-1, L-1, and the limited H-1B programs — to keep recruiting top talent from around the world. H-1B visas, a favorite of the tech industry, are capped at 85,000 each year. That figure hasn’t changed since the 1990s, even as Silicon Valley has matured into a global superpower.
So applications for that visa far exceed that number, hitting over 300,000 in 2021 and 2022. Pandemic-era backlogs have also persisted, making the wait even longer. The wave of layoffs sweeping the tech sector has made that shortage an urgent problem: If someone on an H-1B visa loses their job, they have 60 days to find a new one or risk deportation.
Critics also say it’s too hard for international students to find a path to staying in the US after graduation, which deprives the country of the potential for them to found the next great tech company.
“What we’ve allowed is to make it impossible for international students to do something in the US,” Eugene Malobrodsky, a partner at the early-stage venture-capital firm One Way Ventures, said. “So they were kicked out of the country, went back to their home, and started a company that became a unicorn. We could’ve had those unicorns in the US. We keep putting roadblocks in front of the best talent in the world.”
America’s loss is other countries’ gain
Meanwhile, other countries are making it easier for tech workers like Negandhi and students to immigrate. Canada allows highly skilled immigrants to get permanent residency, where they have the freedom to change jobs without a time limit. It also requires only a three-year permanent-residency period before you can apply for citizenship, much faster than the decade it can take in the US. The wait can be even longer for immigrants from India and China, given the limits for each country.
Japan slashed wait times to get permanent residency for researchers and engineers to one year, Singapore introduced a visa targeted at tech workers, and the UK grants graduates from top universities (many in the US) visas regardless of nationality.
That makes those countries more attractive for entrepreneurs and highly skilled tech workers — and it incentivizes even American tech companies to emphasize hiring for new roles in countries with more flexible immigration policies because they can hire from around the world in those offices, Anver, one of the immigration attorneys, said.
Immigrants who leave America can find a higher quality of life elsewhere
Despite the pandemic, and the backlogs in the system over the past few years, applications for H-1B visas are just as high as ever, signaling that the US is still the top choice for many.
At the same time, though, those who leave for countries like Canada aren’t necessarily eager to return.
That’s the case for Aditya Joshi, who emigrated from India to the US on an L-1 visa. After two years on the job, his employer reassigned him back to India. He quickly found out that he didn’t have a lot of options if he wanted to stay in the US: He couldn’t switch employers under the terms of an L-1, and if his company revoked its sponsorship of his visa, it would endanger his ability to stay in the US.
Knowing that the US system could be complicated, he previously applied for residency in Canada. He ultimately moved his family there in 2021, when he landed a job with Meta that allowed him to work remotely. Canada’s more flexible approach allowed him to stay in the country without an expiration date, meaning more peace of mind for him and his family.
In Canada, he said the cost of living was lower, the real estate was cheaper, and policy around immigrant workers was less politically charged. He has complicated feelings about moving back to the US. While Canada offers more stability, he does feel like growing in his career will be harder from outside the pull of Silicon Valley.
For now, though, he’s happy to stay in Canada.
“We can afford a bigger house over here. Things are greener and cleaner over here — those things are definitely much better in Canada,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about what happens tomorrow.”